Career tips from 4 women who got the corner office

By Robert Half on 19 August 2015

In 2004, the book Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office became an international bestseller by showing women the unconscious mistakes they were making that sabotaged their careers and kept them from making it to the top.

Author Lois Frankel highlighted 101 mistakes throughout her book, and offered practical tips for women to start reclaiming their place in the office.

Here are four accomplished women in the Australian finance and accounting sector that are living proof of how the lessons from Frankel's book can lead to success and the corner office.

1. “Accept all challenges.” – Gail Kelly, former CEO at Westpac

One blunder avoided by women who "got the corner office" is refusing high-profile assignments (mistake number 49 in Frankel's book). Gail Kelly, former Westpac CEO, advises women to put up their hand for challenging roles – even before they feel ready.

Leaving an unsatisfying teaching career in South Africa to jump into banking as a teller, Kelly quickly progressed through the ranks before becoming head of human resources at NedcorBank in 1990 – just five months after giving birth to triplets. After going on to hold senior management roles at Australia’s Commonwealth and St. George Banks, she became the first female CEO of a major Australian bank, Westpac.

CEO from 2008 until she retired in February 2015 (but with no plans to put her feet up), under Kelly's leadership the bank’s market capitalisation doubled from $50 billion to around $104 billion. At the height of her influence, Forbes ranked Kelly as one of the most powerful women in the world.

Speaking to The Financial Review, Kelly says: "Be courageous, and be prepared to take the opportunities and the challenges that come your way. In my experience, women like to be really 100 per cent ready before they put their hand up."

It's a phenomenon she understands well, but she hasn't let it slow down her career. "It’s been trouble for me all my life, the sense of ‘Gosh, I’m not good enough. What happens if I fail?’ I’ve had to pause, stop, dig deep [...] actively say I’m going to back myself, actively say there are others out there that want me to win."

In your own career: Seek out challenging projects and confidently accept those offered to you.

2. “Leave time for personal passions.” – Shemara Wikramanayake, executive director at Macquarie Bank

Shemara Wikramanayake is doing more than okay. She's reportedly worth a cool $45 million according to BRW's Rich Women list and there's speculation she could be Macquarie Bank's next CEO. All this despite the bias associated with being female and having a non-white (Sri Lankan) background.

Even in her highly responsible role, Wikramanayake seems to deliberately avoid Frankel's mistake (number 38) of “putting work ahead of your personal life”. Some successful people only realise how much they sacrificed for their career when they retire, once they've taken the blinders off and discovered how much they may have lost – from family and friends to health and interests.

Wikramanayake continues to make space for her family and passions. BRW says she’s carved out time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and visit Antarctica while working at Macquarie. When she worked in the United Kingdom for six months, she spent weekends catching up with her husband and two school-aged children, who were travelling around Europe. She also took 12 months off to set up a charity fund that gives gifted children from developing countries access to tertiary education.

In your own career: Know your priorities, and focus on them when choosing between competing activities. If you don’t have a reason to leave work on time, find one.

3. “Nurture your network.” – Ellie Comerford, CEO at Genworth Mortgage Insurance

Ellie Comerford comes from rural Queensland’s Goondiwindi, the third of eight children. She planned to study law but, thanks to a scholarship, ended up in banking “by default”. She’s now the head of Australia’s largest lenders mortgage insurance provider, and Bloomberg puts her earnings last year at nearly $1.6 million.

Comerford spearheaded Genworth’s successful $583 million initial public offering (IPO) last year. After the busy period, she’s been keen to invest more energy in nurturing relationships (topic number 41 for girls who want the corner office).

“It is very refreshing to be able to spend more time with the people around me again,” she told Finsia (Australasia’s financial services industry organisation). “I love talking to everybody and getting ideas. I really enjoy helping people too but they also help you back. They will tell you what is really going on and give you a reality check."

In your own career: Take time to list the people who can influence your career. Plan ways to connect with and help them. You never know when you might need them to help you back.

4. “Make yourself visible.” – Joyce Phillips, CEO of global wealth at ANZ

Joyce Phillips has been named one of American Banker’s “25 Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance” three times. Part of her success is that she makes sure she’s visible in her industry and the community (Frankel's tip number 55). She regularly presents to senior business people and influential organisations. In March this year, she spoke to the Creative Innovation Asia Pacific conference on how we’ll be living longer in the super-connected world of the future, and she will speak to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce in November.

Phillips is also visible via social media. As well as being quite prolific on Twitter, she blogs for ANZ's Blue Notes and guest blogs for IBM's A Smarter Planet Blog.

In your own career: Be one of the first people to speak at meetings. Write for your company newsletter or blog. Interact thoughtfully with influential people on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Through the examples of these women who lifted the glass ceiling before you, you too can avoid the career-limiting mistakes you might inadvertently be making if you have your sights on the corner office.

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